Fire Finished Off the Old Walton Mansion

03Sep13

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Suspicious 1940 blaze linked to union activity
On the afternoon of July 18, 1940, the Wakefield Fire Department received a frantic call from the caretaker of the former Arthur G. Walton property at 108 Main St. Hans Meyer, who still lived in the caretaker’s house, reported that the old Walton family mansion was on fire.

walton_houseThe structure was vacant and was in fact was in the process of being torn down by the property’s new owner, developer Pasquale DeCristofaro. Although demolition had begun, the main structure was still standing on the day of the fire.

Around the same time, businessman Lester Russell of Foster Street was returning from Reading. He had just turned on to Lowell Street when he “heard and felt and explosion,” the Daily Item reported. He stopped to see if something had happened to his car and saw the mansion in flames.

When the smoke cleared, the Massachusetts State Fire Marshall’s office would investigate the blaze as suspicious following reports of union trouble earlier in the day among demolition workers.

A year after the Aug. 6, 1937 death Arthur G. Walton, DeCristofaro had purchased at auction the sprawling Lakeside estate of the wealthy shoe manufacturer for a mere $2,600. The house alone, exclusive of the surrounding land, had once been assessed at $25,000.

DeCristofaro was from Roslindale and owned the Howard Johnson’s franchise a short distance away at the head of Lake Quanapowitt.

Despite the bargain basement price, the Wakefield Daily Item at the time called the Walton property sale “one of the biggest real estate transactions ever taking place in Wakefield,” due to the sheer volume of property involved. As part of the purchase price, DePasquale also got the 2.7 acres of land that the mansion sat on. In addition, he bought from the Walton estate four good lots fronting Main Street, four buildable lots facing Lowell Street and the lot on the corner of Main and Lowell streets – a total of nine lots for $335 each.

DeCristofaro also purchased at a low price 43 acres across Lowell Street along the Saugus River, an area known as Walton’s Woods.

Why was the land sold so cheaply?

Brian Coughlin, who now lives on Walton Lane has researched the Walton family extensively and speculates that it may have been largely due to the Great Depression. In addition, following the deaths of Arthur G. Walton and his wife Mary, their heirs may have simply wanted to settle the estate quickly and with as little fuss as possible.

In fact, the Item reported that “the Walton heirs decided to dispose of all of the family’s extensive real estate holdings in Wakefield.” In addition to the lakeside acreage, the Walton heirs sold off extensive property in the downtown area, including three large semi-detached blocks on the easterly side of Main Street from Mechanic Street (now Princess Street) to Lincoln Street in the heart of Wakefield Square.

After living for many years at 25 Avon St., Arthur G. Walton purchased the stately home at 108 Main St. overlooking Lake Quannapowitt from Thomas Martin in 1907. The property had once been owned, until his death in 1885, by Dr. Francis P. Hurd, for whom the Hurd School was named.

On the day of the fire, caretaker Hans Meyer was approaching his house from a hen house when he saw the burst of flame at the mansion and called the Fire Department.

“Huge billows of black and grey smoke rolled over Lake Quannapowitt,” the Daily Item reported, “and the flames were so hot that on the north and east side the throng of spectators had to stand at a respectful distance.”

Because of ongoing sewer construction, a Lakeside portion of Main Street was closed, so fire apparatus had to reach the conflagration by way of Vernon and Lowell streets. The fire broke out just before 5:30 p.m. and firefighters also had to contend with rush hour traffic along with the mad dash of hundreds of motorists who heard the alarms or saw the billowing smoke from a distance.

According to the Daily Item, although fire apparatus arrived promptly, by the time hose lines could be laid the entire structure was engulfed in flames. Apparatus from Reading, Stoneham and Melrose also came to battle the blaze.

The fire was considered suspicious, according to the Daily Item, because Meyer told authorities that during the afternoon he overheard an argument concerning union carpenters working on an allegedly non-union job, that of demolishing the house. Also, Lester Russell had reported hearing an explosion.

DeCristofaro was reported to have been on site earlier in the day, but left later.

“The argument was said to have been started by union delegates,” the Item reported, “who were objecting to union men working on a non-union contract and to the use of a crane.”

By October of 1940, DeCristofaro had erected a large billboard at the corner of Main and Lowell streets advertising the availability of 53 desirable house lots on the former Walton lakeside properties, newly dubbed “Lakeside Manor.” Seventeen of the lots, the Item noted, had frontage on Main Street. Even those on Lowell Street were on high ground, commanding a lake vista.

Two new streets, Walden Road and Cristofaro Street were laid out in short order and some new houses were built. But then World War II broke out and shortages of materials meant that building construction had to be suspended until 1945. By October of that year, DeCristofaro had secured more building permits and once again had a steam shovel on the site excavating cellars.

[This story originally appeared in the Wakefield Daily Item.]

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